Flipping a coin. Throwing a dart at a board. Pulling a slip of paper out of a hat.
Sure, they’re all ways to make a choice. But they all hinge on random chance rather than analysis, reflection, and strategy — you know, the things you actually need to make the big, meaty decisions that have major impacts.
So, set down that Magic 8 Ball and back away slowly. Let’s walk through the standard framework for decision-making that will help you and your team pinpoint the problem, consider your options, and make your most informed selection. Here’s a closer look at each of the seven steps of the decision-making process, and how to approach each one.
Step 1: Identify the decision
Most of us are eager to tie on our superhero capes and jump into problem-solving mode — especially if our team is depending on a solution. But you can’t solve a problem until you have a full grasp on what it actually is.
This first step focuses on getting the lay of the land when it comes to your decision. What specific problem are you trying to solve? What goal are you trying to achieve?
How to do it:
- Use the 5 whys analysis to go beyond surface-level symptoms and understand the root cause of a problem.
- Try problem framing to dig deep on the ins and outs of whatever problem your team is fixing. The point is to define the problem, not solve it.
⚠️ Watch out for: Decision fatigue, which is the tendency to make worse decisions as a result of needing to make too many of them. Making choices is mentally taxing, which is why it’s helpful to pinpoint one decision at a time.
2. Gather information
Your team probably has a few hunches and best guesses, but those can lead to knee-jerk reactions. Take care to invest adequate time and research into your decision.
This step is when you build your case, so to speak. Collect relevant information — that could be data, customer stories, information about past projects, feedback, or whatever else seems pertinent. You’ll use that to make decisions that are informed, rather than impulsive.
How to do it:
- Host a team mindmapping session to freely explore ideas and make connections between them. It can help you identify what information will best support the process.
- Create a project poster to define your goals and also determine what information you already know and what you still need to find out.
⚠️ Watch out for: Information bias, or the tendency to seek out information even if it won’t impact your action. We have the tendency to think more information is always better, but pulling together a bunch of facts and insights that aren’t applicable may cloud your judgment rather than offer clarity.
3. Identify alternatives
Blame the popularity of the coin toss, but making a decision often feels like choosing between only two options. Do you want heads or tails? Door number one or door number two?
In reality, your options aren’t usually so cut and dried. Take advantage of this opportunity to get creative and brainstorm all sorts of routes or solutions. There’s no need to box yourselves in.
How to do it:
- Use the Six Thinking Hats technique to explore the problem or goal from all sides: information, emotions and instinct, risks, benefits, and creativity. It can help you and your team break away from your typical roles or mindsets and think more freely.
- Try brainwriting so team members can write down their ideas independently before sharing with the group. Research shows that this quiet, lone thinking time can boost psychological safety and generate more creative suggestions.
⚠️ Watch out for: Groupthink, which is the tendency of a group to make non-optimal decisions in the interest of conformity. People don’t want to rock the boat, so they don’t speak up.
4. Consider the evidence
Armed with your list of alternatives, it’s time to take a closer look and determine which ones could be worth pursuing. You and your team should ask questions like “How will this solution address the problem or achieve the goal?” and “What are the pros and cons of this option?”
Be honest with your answers (and back them up with the information you already collected when you can). Remind the team that this isn’t about advocating for their own suggestions to “win” — it’s about whittling your options down to the best decision.
How to do it:
- Use a SWOT analysis to dig into the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the options you’re seriously considering.
- Run a project trade-off analysis to understand what constraints (such as time, scope, or cost) the team is most willing to compromise on if needed.
⚠️ Watch out for: Extinction by instinct, which is the urge to make a decision just to get it over with. You didn’t come this far to settle for a “good enough” option!
5. Choose among the alternatives
This is it — it’s the big moment when you and the team actually make the decision. You’ve identified all possible options, considered the supporting evidence, and are ready to choose how you’ll move forward.
However, bear in mind that there’s still a surprising amount of room for flexibility here. Maybe you’ll modify an alternative or combine a few suggested solutions together to land on the best fit for your problem and your team.
How to do it:
- Use the DACI framework (that stands for “driver, approver, contributor, informed”) to understand who ultimately has the final say in decisions. The decision-making process can be collaborative, but eventually someone needs to be empowered to make the final call.
- Try a simple voting method for decisions that are more democratized. You’ll simply tally your team’s votes and go with the majority.
⚠️ Watch out for: Analysis paralysis, which is when you overthink something to such a great degree that you feel overwhelmed and freeze when it’s time to actually make a choice.
6. Take action
Making a big decision takes a hefty amount of work, but it’s only the first part of the process — now you need to actually implement it.
It’s tempting to think that decisions will work themselves out once they’re made. But particularly in a team setting, it’s crucial to invest just as much thought and planning into communicating the decision and successfully rolling it out.
How to do it:
- Create a stakeholder communications plan to determine how you’ll keep various people — direct team members, company leaders, customers, or whoever else has an active interest in your decision — in the loop on your progress.
- Define the goals, signals, and measures of your decision so you’ll have an easier time aligning the team around the next steps and determining whether or not they’re successful.
⚠️Watch out for: Self-doubt, or the tendency to question whether or not you’re making the right move. While we’re hardwired for doubt, now isn’t the time to be a skeptic about your decision. You and the team have done the work, so trust the process.
7. Review your decision
As the decision itself starts to shake out, it’s time to take a look in the rearview mirror and reflect on how things went.
Did your decision work out the way you and the team hoped? What happened? Examine both the good and the bad. What should you keep in mind if and when you need to make this sort of decision again?
How to do it:
- Do a 4 L’s retrospective to talk through what you and the team loved, loathed, learned, and longed for as a result of that decision.
- Celebrate any wins (yes, even the small ones) related to that decision. It gives morale a good kick in the pants and can also help make future decisions feel a little less intimidating.
⚠️ Watch out for: Hindsight bias, or the tendency to look back on events with the knowledge you have now and beat yourself up for not knowing better at the time. Even with careful thought and planning, some decisions don’t work out — but you can only operate with the information you have at the time.
Making smart decisions about the decision-making process
You’re probably picking up on the fact that the decision-making process is fairly comprehensive. And the truth is that the model is likely overkill for the small and inconsequential decisions you or your team members need to make.
Deciding whether you should order tacos or sandwiches for your team offsite doesn’t warrant this much discussion and elbow grease. But figuring out which major project to prioritize next? That requires some careful and collaborative thought.
It all comes back to the concept of satisficing versus maximizing, which are two different perspectives on decision making. Here’s the gist:
- Maximizers aim to get the very best out of every single decision.
- Satisficers are willing to settle for “good enough” rather than obsessing over achieving the best outcome.
One of those isn’t necessarily better than the other — and, in fact, they both have their time and place.
A major decision with far-reaching impacts deserves some fixation and perfectionism. However, hemming and hawing over trivial choices (“Should we start our team meeting with casual small talk or a structured icebreaker?”) will only cause added stress, frustration, and slowdowns.
As with anything else, it’s worth thinking about the potential impacts to determine just how much deliberation and precision a decision actually requires.
Decision-making is one of those things that’s part art and part science. You’ll likely have some gut feelings and instincts that are worth taking into account. But those should also be complemented with plenty of evidence, evaluation, and collaboration.
The decision-making process is a framework that helps you strike that balance. Follow the seven steps and you and your team can feel confident in the decisions you make — while leaving the darts and coins where they belong.
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